2020–21 Undergraduate Graduation Ceremony Remarks (24 March 2021)

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Nagahiro Minato, 27th President


Let me begin by congratulating the 2,770 undergraduate students who are graduating from Kyoto University today. On behalf of our guest of honor, former president Dr Juichi Yamagiwa, as well as the executive vice-presidents, deans and directors, and all of the University's faculty, staff, and students, I extend our heartfelt congratulations to each one of you. Your family members, relatives, and others who have provided you with support and encouragement as you worked toward your graduation must be very proud of you. I would also like to express our deepest gratitude and congratulations to those people. The students gathered here today are now among the 217,226 students to whom Kyoto University has awarded bachelor's degrees since the first graduation ceremony was held in 1900 — 121 years ago.

All of you graduating today spent your final undergraduate year under severe restrictions, amidst the unprecedented calamity of the novel coronavirus pandemic. You must have had to cope with experiences that you could not have foreseen just a year earlier. Students in the United States, Europe, and all over the world must also have undergone similar hardships. In your case, not only did you have to attend most of your lectures and seminars online, you were unable to freely visit the University campuses and engage in extracurricular activities, or even meet with your friends face-to-face. I am sure that it was a truly distressing time for you all. Those of you living alone must have experienced particular stress. In response to this unexpected situation, the University put in place a range of support measures, but at the same time, we also had to make a number of difficult demands of you. I would like to express our gratitude to you for your patience and cooperation throughout.

I expect, however, that these abnormal circumstances also provided you with opportunities to think deeply about a variety of matters relating to your respective areas of study. You have all acquired a fundamental knowledge of subjects ranging from the natural sciences to the humanities and social sciences. You may also have come to an understanding with regards to some significant global issues, the Covid-19 pandemic being among them, that cannot be resolved solely by means of existing science and technology. These include planetary climate change, environmental degradation, and large-scale natural disasters, all of which confront contemporary society on a global scale.

We have long believed that progress in science and technology is key to the advancement of humanity and society. This modernist idea may not be entirely mistaken, but it is now clearer than ever that scientific and technological progress does not automatically bring solutions to the complex, global-level problems plaguing humanity. In the current circumstances, our collective future depends more than ever on the individual's view of reality, judgment, and actions. In this sense, now may be an opportune time to revisit the philosophy of selbstdenken (independent thinking) as advanced by Kitaro Nishida and other pre-war philosophers of Kyoto School. This philosophy forms a part of Kyoto University's long tradition of critical thinking, which remains alive and well today.

Now that we are well into the "information era", we see a great mass of information being circulated through the internet daily in addition to a variety of other media, making it more like an "era of information overload". We are also exchanging information globally and instantaneously using social media. If we are not careful, we can easily lose sight of ourselves amid this huge volume of information. That is why I would like to talk a little about the spirit of critical thinking, founded on the idea of selbstdenken. Looking up the English word "critical" in my dictionary, I found that it means "difficult to deal with because a small mistake could make very bad things happen". The Japanese word for criticism, meanwhile, is hihan, comprised of two Chinese characters, one meaning "to check the facts" (hi) and the other, "to discern and make judgments" (han). The word thus denotes the importance of ascertaining the facts and examining one's own thought process before making judgements and decisions, as opposed to accepting things on face value. This shows that the common use of hihan, in the negative sense of denouncing, attacking, or refuting the arguments of others, is not consistent with the term's original meaning.

In the context of decision-making, being critical means to ascertain that our analysis is based on adequate data, our ideas and judgments are based on correct assumptions, and our thought process has been logical and unbiased, not influenced by habits or preferences. It is especially important not to make judgments that are knee-jerk, rigid, or dogmatic. We should also keep in mind that, as the German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer cautioned, even if we have reached a conclusion after critically contemplating all of these factors, "it is still possible, nonetheless, that the other side is correct". I believe that this kind of selbstdenken, informed by dispassionate critical thinking and a generosity of spirit, is more important than ever in this era of information overload.

Meanwhile, you are the first graduating class of Kyoto University students who have experienced nearly a year of studying online. The same can be said for the vast majority of our faculty, who had little or no prior experience of teaching online, but had to press on in uncertainty. Fortunately, with the aid of the latest computers and applications, online classes functioned reasonably well, at least in terms of providing information and knowledge. In certain respects, they may even have proven more effective than face-to-face teaching. At the same time, however, this experience has made us realize something very important about in-person communication, which we had long practiced before without recognizing its significance. Among the things that you yourselves may have rediscovered in this way are the feelings of empathy and compassion that can develop between those sharing the same space and time. Communication via high-quality audio and video is fairly efficient in terms of information transmission and data exchange. Ordinarily, however, our interactive communication also relies on information from our shared space — information that we unconsciously pick up via our senses and utilize in our interactions. This process attunes us to the mood and atmosphere of the place that we are in, as well as helping us empathize with each other. I trust that you will make the most of the experiences of the past year, and apply what you have discovered about the importance of empathy in communication, which you may not have fully appreciated in the past. I also hope that you will be able to appreciate your interpersonal relationships even more than before, cherishing their subtle richness.

Now you have completed your undergraduate studies and are embarking on a new journey, either into the world of even more advanced research, or into the world of work beyond academia. A little over a century ago a female Canadian author named L.M. Montgomery wrote Anne of Green Gables, the first of a series of novels about a red-haired girl by the name of Anne Shirley. This is said to be the world's most widely-read work of juvenile literature; perhaps some of you have read it, too. I personally think that today this book deserves to be read by adults even more than by children. If you haven't already, I would recommend that you read the original English-language version. The most famous part of the series depicts the heroine's childhood. Here, however, I would like to draw your attention to Chapter 38, titled "The Bend in the Road", which depicts Anne having just finished school, just like you have, and beginning her career as an elementary school teacher. Here, Anne expresses her excitement about her future using the analogy of a bend in a road — what scenery may come into view, what kinds of people she may encounter, what unexpected happenings she may experience when she rounds the next bend. This unequivocally bright optimism, as well as a boundless curiosity about life and nature, underlie this entire series, which I believe is a true masterpiece in the genre of Bildungsroman, or novels depicting the protagonist's coming-of-age.

At Kyoto University you have all attained fundamental knowledge and accomplishment in your respective fields of academic endeavor, preparing you for your next steps forward. Regardless of whether those steps will be along the path of further research or in work outside of academia, I fully anticipate that each and every one of you will boldly spread your wings as a fully-fledged citizen, equipped with a soundly critical spirit, empathy toward others, and the kind of undeniably bright optimism that Anne Shirley displayed. In closing, I would like to strongly urge you to explore life outside of Japan while you are still young. I myself spent the second half of my twenties working in a research lab in the United States, interacting in friendly competition with contemporaries coming from around the world. This experience has had an immense influence on my life course and mindset over the last four decades, right up to the present day. I pray wholeheartedly that as a new generation of highly-educated global citizens, you too will find your own places in the world.

Once again, please allow me to offer my sincere congratulations to each and every one of you.